The Ten Most Important Books To Expand Your Brain

Books suck. No question about it, almost everyone who writes a book is a crappy writer.

And this is a good thing.

It’s because the writer spent his life getting GOOD at what he was writing about. He didn’t spend his life being good at writing.

He didn’t spend his life typing. He ran a country. Or built a robot. Or discovered DNA or walked between the twin towers.

He or She DID something. Something that changed lives. Something that went from his or her head out into the real world.

But that’s OK. There are a few good books out there.

I like reading billion-person books. Books, that if read widely, would change a billion lives.

I like reading books where I feel my brain have an IQ orgasm. Like, I literally feel my IQ go up while reading the book.

And, (please let me stick with this metaphor one more sentence), I might have a little brain-child that turns into my own special idea or book after reading a great book.

Before I give my list, I want to mention there are three kinds of non-fiction books: (and I’m only dealing with non-fiction. Fiction is another category).

Business Card Books

These are books like “How to be a leader”.

They establish the author as an expert. The author then uses this book to get speaking gigs or coaching or consulting gigs.

These books usually suck. Don’t read one. But nothing wrong with writing one.

In fact, writing one might be desperately important to your career.

Books That Should Be Chapters

A publisher will see an article somewhere like, “12 ways to become smarter” and say, “that should be a book”.

Then the writer mistakenly says, “ok” and he has to undergo the agony of changing something that was a perfectly good 2000 word article into a 60,000 word book.

Those books suck. Don’t read one. And DEFINITELY don’t write one. Unless you want to waste a year of your life. I wasted 2004-2009 doing that.

Braingasm Books

Here’s my top 10 list of braingasm books. Books that will raise your IQ between the time you start and the time you end.

By the way, there are more than 10 of these books. This is just my TOP 10. Although not really in that order. It’s hard for a small mind like mine to order these.

The Books:

(1) “MASTERY” by Robert Greene

This book is like a curated version of 1000 biographies all under the guise, “how to become a master at what you love”.

(2) “BOLD” by Peter Diamondis and Steven Kotler

Basically if you want to know the future, read this.

Supplement it with “Abundance” by the same two and “Tomorrowland” by Steven Kotler” and even “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley.

I feel “Abundance” is like a sequel to “The Rational Optimist”. So I’m giving you four books with one recommendation.

(3) “OUTLIERS” by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell is not the first person to come up with the 10,000 hour rule. Nor is he the first person to document what it takes to become the best in the world at something.

But his stories are so great as he explains these deep concepts.

How did the Beatles become the best? Why are professional hockey players born in January, February and March?

And so on.

(4) “WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM” by Steven Johnson

Also add to this: “How We Got to Now” by Steven Johnson.

Basically: don’t believe the myth of the lonely genius.

Ideas come from a confluence of history, “the adjacent possible” specific geographic locations, etc.

The connections Johnson makes are brilliant. For instance, The Gutenberg Press (which, in itself, was invented because of improvements in sewing looms), made everyone realize they had bad vision.

So the science of lenses was created. So microscopes were eventually created. So germs were eventually discovered. So modern medical science was discovered.

And so on. Johnson is a thinker and a linker and tells a good story.

(5) “MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING” by Victor Frankl

I’m at a loss for words here. Just read it.

Don’t read it for the Holocaust. Or psychological theory.

Read it because when you’re about halfway through you will realize your life is no longer the same.

And next time you get a chance to whisper in the ear of someone about to kill himself, whisper words from this book.

(6) “BORN STANDING UP” by Steve Martin

And while you are at it, throw in “Bounce” by Mathew Syed, who was the UK Ping Pong champion when he was younger.

I love any book where someone took their passion, documented it, and shared it with us. That’s when you can see the subleties, the hard work, the luck, the talent, the skill, all come together to form a champion.

Heck, throw in, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Earth” by Commander Chris Hadfield.

(7) “ZERO TO ONE” by Peter Thiel

There’s a lot of business books out there. 99% of them are BS. Read this one.

So many concepts really changed my attitude about not only business but capitalism.

Thiel, the founder of PayPal, and first investor in Facebook, is brilliant in how he simply shares his theories on building a billion dollar business.

I love his story on my podcast what exactly happened in the room when a 24 year old Mark Zuckerberg was offered $250,000,000 and refused it in two minutes.

(8) “QUIET” by Susan Cain

Probably half the world is introverts.

Maybe more. It’s not an easy life to live.

I sometimes have that feeling in a room full of people, “uh-oh. I just shut down. I can’t talk anymore and there’s a lock on my mouth and this crowd threw away the key.”

Do you ever get that feeling? Please? I hope you do. Let’s try to lock eyes at the party.

“Quiet” shows the reader how to unlock the secret powers that probably half the world needs to unlock.

And, please Susan Cain come on my podcast.

(9) “ANTIFRAGILE” by Nassim Taleb

And throw in “The Black Swan” and “Fooled by Randomness”.

“Fragile” means if you hit something might break.

“Resilient” means if you hit something, it will stay the same.

On my podcast Nassim discusses “Antifragility” – building a system, even on that works for you on a personal level, where you if you harm your self in some way it becomes stronger.

That podcast changed my life

He discusses Antifragility throughout history, up to our current economic situation, and even in our personal situations.

(10) “MINDSET” by Carol Dweck

Again, I am fascinated by the field of mastery.

Not self-improvement (eat well, sleep well, etc) but on how can you continue a path of improvement so that you can really enjoy the subtleties at a very deep level of whatever it is you love.

Carol Dweck, through massive research and storytelling, shows the reader how to continue on the path of improvement and why so many people fall off that path.

These are not books I’m picking so I can look smart. These are books that I’ve read that have made me smarter.

Related post: How to Self-Publish a Bestseller: Publishing 3.0

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  • asklychee

    Ok out of all 10 i have only read 3 not good!! But the 3 i read i have definitely taken a lot from and agree with your comments. Viktor’s book just blew me a way – it gave me life! Totally recommend

    • Namdi

      Saw your posts via sulibreaks. You are an inspiration. I’ve read just one. I’ve got a lot more to read. Feels good to know.

  • I have a library of more than 300 books on leadership, personal development, and faith stuff… how the hell is it that I’ve missed these books?

    Thanks for sharing. Looks like I’m going to start with Quiet by Susan Cain and Mindset by Carol Dweck.

    • Endgame Napoleon

      Other than the Frankl book, which is beautiful, I have not read any of these, but really, all of them sound fascinating. The first Amazon review of the Thiel book was fascinating [in of itself]. Based on a review, I think I would like that book “Mastery” and most of the others, too. In non fiction, I usually like a book that breaks a subject down, technically, in great detail, but with some historical context, like the books below, which are not about leadership or motivation. They are about the way artists [construct] the art: the color theory, the techniques and the tools [with historical context]. With fiction, I like the books that show the most formal artistry—the books that are like little jewels, with a crystalline structure and poetic word deployment that few ever achieve. I also see the value in books with strong characters or ideas that you actually remember over time. Word-wise, those books are sometimes not as beautiful. They are more focused on content than form.

  • Klugemotivation

    I would also add “33 strategies on War”, also by R. Greene, to point (1). It goes hand in hand with “Mastery” as it tackles the subtleties one has to pursue in order to refine his/her own game, execution namely, which leads to mastery.

    3 out of 10 (Mastery, Zero to To One, Antifragile). 7 to GO! Powerful reads indeed.

    Cheers and thanks again.

  • PattiSluth

    In addition to this list…

    You might take a look at this list titled the, “29 top Altucher truisms to help us be better free agents”:

    You can see it here:

    My favorite Altucher truism from this list is:

    Do not try to please people

    Nobody is more worthy of love in the entire universe than you.

    I wish I had reminded myself of that more.

    Trying to please everyone else wasted away a lot of my life.

    When we lose money, we can always make it back…

    But even five minutes of time lost is gone forever.

  • Peter Connor

    Anti-Fragile is a great book, even better than The Black Swan….As to inspirational stuff, try reading about Eric Hoffer, who went from being a near blind illiterate to Philosopher and leader of the International Longshoreman’s Union.

    • Better than The Black Swan? I have to check it out then.

  • Catharine

    Hey, James ~
    I love all of your posts, and I read every one when they come into my inbox, but this one is one of my favorites, ever.

    And yes, I added every single book to my Amazon wish list. And swiped the quote image.
    Love, love, love.
    ~ C

  • Nazish

    Starting with “Where good ideas come from.”
    I have read Quite twice… Now I’m going to finish this list soon…Well, a girl can hope :D

  • Andreas Schmidt

    Fantastic list. I simply love “Abundance” and “The Rational Optimist”. Thanks to our main-stream media there is simply too much bad news floating around in our attention zone causing people to have a rather pessimistic outlook for the future.

    But why? Humankind is still around. Which means that we have never failed up to now. We have always found new solutions to progress our species. So why should we suddenly fail in that?

    Let’s read more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff out there. And then remember the book you don’t read won’t help!

    • LatherRinseReTWEET

      Rational Optimist 5/5 stars!

    • FredFlintstoned

      I completely disagree about the Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley.
      I borrowed the book from my library based on your suggestion but I found it unbelievably boring. It was the combination of his redundant, repetitive writing style and uninteresting topic that made me abhor this book. I can only recommend this book for those who absolutely love reading about economics, trade and history. If you can ignore the possibility of anything negative occurring in one’s life all for the purpose of wishful long-term prosperity for mankind in the future, this book might be for you.
      I found none of the information in this book useful in application to benefit my present life.

  • Lindsey Christine Kesel

    Have you read “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield? Be curious to know if what you thought of that one.

    • Tony Meade

      That along with the other two books in that “trilogy”, “Do The Work”, and “Turning Pro”, are all fantastic, though they overlap so much that they probably could have been combined into one book.

  • PinkyFinklestein

    Nassim Taleb? No. He thinks vaccines cause autism. I cannot take anything he writes seriously after that.

    • Then you haven’t read The Black Swan.

  • PinkyFinklestein

    I have. I found it problematic. He calls many things black swans that, by his own definition, are not black swans (eg, ratcheting violence in his home country of Lebanon– given the long history in that region, that is not a black swan). He also advocates hedging against black swan events–which is an impossibility. You cannot perfectly hedge against the unknowable. Effectively, he spins backward looking yarns, which are useless in forward-looking projections.

    And his position on vaccines shows he has no grasp of the scientific method. So, I’m not wasting my time with any more of his books.

    • Mark

      Hi Pinky, I have not heard Nassim express this stance on vaccines. Could you please share the source in which he has done so? (Was it in one of his books, in which case I missed it?)

      • PinkyFinklestein

        He frequently tweets about his stance. I apologize – I’m not techno-savvy enough to insert one of his tweets here, but you can sift through his twitter feed and find something fast. He is also anti-GMO and is over-the-top hostile to those who challenge him on the science (he likes to throw the “r” word around–which to me shows he has run out of a sound basis for whatever the position is he is attempting to defend. I don’t recall the Plato recommending childish name-calling as a rhetorical tactic). I actually enjoy following his tweets, because he becomes unhinged quite quickly. Whoever his handlers are should not let him tweet. Bad for his brand. Good for entertainment, though.

        • Mark

          He is certainly anti-GMO, no questions there; but the anti-vaccine stance would be news to me, as I’ve followed his books and Facebook posts closely over the years (not his tweets, as I am hardly on Twitter), and do not ever recall him discussing that issue in particular (though I think he did use the conceptual idea of vaccines as an example of antifragility in his latest book). I did an Advanced Search on Twitter, and from the keywords I used (, couldn’t find any of his tweets mentioning vaccines or autism in particular (though perhaps I didn’t search enough keywords?). If anyone is able to correct me, please let me know.

        • Endgame Napoleon

          Don’t tell the mainstream media that Plato disapproves of name-calling.

    • Endgame Napoleon

      I can’t say I’ve read his books. However, although the past does not align in detail with current events, patterns in history are instructive. Sometimes, people use stories, rather than dry prose, to reveal those patterns.

  • Catharine Moore

    Loved the distinction between nonfiction books. Excellent!

  • Neal Veglio

    Gonna check these out. Also, check out “The 1 Thing”. I forget who it’s by. But it rocks like a Rolling Stone on crack.

  • Jan Masny photographer

    You write like a moron.

  • Jan Masny photographer

    Your writing style is so dumbed down it’s nauseating.

  • Jan Masny photographer

    There are thousands of wonderful books. Books don’t suck you idiot.

  • LatherRinseReTWEET

    Antifragile is life-changing. All Matt Ridley’s work is fascinating.

  • Amit Patel

    Thanks for the list. The only one I have read is Outliers and another of his book blink. Need to get to this list. I bought Zero to One only because of listening to an interview of Peter Thiel by one of your friends I think Ramit or Tim , need to get to it ASAP.

  • Imran Jazib

    Great list and I’m so grateful to you, James. I’ve read Man’s search for meaning, Outliers, Antifragile, Quiet, The black swan, Bold and Fooled by randomness. Antifragile and Bold are both fascinating stuff. About to start ‘where good ideas come from’.

  • Matthew Jerome Simpson

    Stop fucking up the word “literally” you sound like a fucking moron.

  • Tony Meade

    The last two books that I read that definitely fell under the “Books That Should Be Chapters” category were “The Power Of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, and “The Paradox Of Choice” by Barry Schwartz. Good ideas, but painful reads.

  • Mark

    Wonderful listing. I just adore “Large quantity” and “The Realistic Optimist”. As a result of our principal-supply multimedia there is certainly basically too much not so good news floating close to within our interest region leading to men and women to get a somewhat pessimistic view for future years.

    Why? Humankind remains to be all around. Meaning we have now by no means was unsuccessful so far. App promotion – We now have always found new solutions to progress our varieties. Why should we suddenly crash for the reason that?

    Let’s read through a lot of the good stuff and less of your terrible stuff on the market. And after that keep in mind the publication you don’t read won’t support!

  • James Buechler

    Wouldn’t these great blogs be better with a date? Not talking about a partner.

  • nocte_volens

    I would add “Fooled by Randomness” by Taleb

    • nocte_volens

      oops. I see he did.

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  • MASTERY by Robert Greene I have read this book good content helpful
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  • Ken Abrams

    More Beautiful Question by Warren Burger; one of the best business books on the planet.

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  • George Neujahr

    James I’ve been a contract technical writer for over forty years and read several technical books each day. I don’t have a lot of time to read many books with the small amount of leisure time that I have left in the week from working 7 – 12’s, but i will give it a shot since your list looks very interesting. Hopefully they are all books that you can’t put down until your done reading them.